Schopenhauer's birthplace house, ul. Św. Ducha (formerly Heiligegeistgasse)
Schopenhauer was born on 22 February 1788, in the city of Danzig (then part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth; present day Gdańsk, Poland) on Heiligegeistgasse (known in the present day as Św. Ducha 47), the son of Johanna Schopenhauer (née Trosiener) and Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, both descendants of wealthy German-Dutch patrician families. Neither of them were very religious,; each supported the French Revolution, and were republicans, cosmopolitans and Anglophiles. When Danzig became part of Prussia in 1793, Heinrich moved to Hamburg—a free city with a republican constitution, protected by Britain and Holland against Prussian aggression—although his firm continued trading in Danzig where most of their extended families remained. Adele, Arthur's only sibling was born on 12 July 1797.
In 1797 Arthur was sent to Le Havre to live for two years with the family of his father's business associate, Grégoire de Blésimaire. He seemed to enjoy his stay there, learned to speak French fluently and started a friendship with Jean Anthime Grégoire de Blésimaire, his peer, which lasted for a large part of their lives. As early as 1799, Arthur started playing the flute.:30 In 1803 he joined his parents on their long tour of Holland, Britain, France, Switzerland, Austria and Prussia; it was mostly a pleasure tour although Heinrich also visited some of his business associates. Heinrich gave his son a choice – he could stay at home and start preparations for university education, or he could travel with them and then continue his merchant education. Arthur later deeply regretted his choice because he found his merchant training tedious. He spent twelve weeks of the tour attending a school in Wimbledon where he was very unhappy and appalled by strict but intellectually shallow Anglican religiosity, which he continued to sharply criticize later in life despite his general Anglophilia. He was also under pressure from his father who became very critical of his educational results. Heinrich became so fussy that even his wife started to doubt his mental health.
In 1805, Heinrich died by drowning in a canal by their home in Hamburg. Although it was possible that his death was accidental, his wife and son believed that it was suicide because he was very prone to unsociable behavior, anxiety and depression which became especially pronounced in his last months of life. Arthur showed similar moodiness since his youth and often acknowledged that he inherited it from his father; there were also several other instances of serious mental health issues on his father's side of family. His mother Johanna was generally described as vivacious and sociable. Despite the hardships, Schopenhauer seemed to like his father and later mentioned him always in a positive light. Heinrich Schopenhauer left the family with a significant inheritance that was split in three among Johanna and the children. Arthur Schopenhauer was entitled to control of his part when he reached the age of majority. He invested it conservatively in government bonds and earned annual interest that was more than double the salary of a university professor.
Arthur spent two years as a merchant in honor of his dead father, and because of his own doubts about being too old to start a life of a scholar. Most of his prior education was practical merchant training and he had some trouble with learning Latin which was a prerequisite for any academic career. His mother moved, with her daughter Adele, to Weimar—then the centre of German literature—to enjoy social life among writers and artists. Arthur and his mother were not on good terms. In one letter to him she wrote, "You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are overshadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people." Arthur left his mother, and though she died 24 years later, they never met again. Some of negative opinions of the later philosopher about women may be rooted in his troubled relationship with his mother.
Arthur lived in Hamburg with his friend Jean Anthime who was also studying to become a merchant.
After quitting his merchant apprenticeship, with some encouragement from his mother, he dedicated himself to studies at the Gotha gymnasium (
Gymnasium illustre zu Gotha ) in Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, but he also enjoyed social life among local nobility spending large amounts of money which caused concern to his frugal mother. He left Gymnasium after writing a satirical poem about one of the lecturers. Although Arthur claimed that he left voluntarily, his mother's letter indicates that he was expelled.
He moved to Weimar but didn't live with his mother who even tried to discourage him from coming by explaining that they wouldn't get along very well. Their relationship deteriorated even further due to their temperamental differences. He accused his mother of being financially irresponsible, flirtatious and seeking to remarry, which he considered an insult to his father's memory. His mother, while professing her love to him, criticized him sharply for being moody, tactless, and argumentative—and urged him to improve his behavior so he would not alienate people. Arthur concentrated on his studies which were now going very well and he also enjoyed the usual social life such as balls, parties and theater. By that time Johanna's famous salon was well established among local intellectuals and dignitaries, most celebrated of them being Goethe. Arthur attended her parties, usually when he knew that Goethe would be there—though the famous writer and statesman didn't even seem to notice the young and unknown student. It is possible that Goethe kept distance because Johanna warned him about her son's depressive and combative nature, or because Goethe was then on bad terms with Arthur's language instructor and roommate, Franz Passow. Schopenhauer was also captivated by the beautiful Karoline Jagemann, mistress of Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and he wrote to her his only known love poem. Despite his later celebration of asceticism and negative views of sexuality, Schopenhauer occasionally had sexual affairs, usually with women of lower social status, such as servants, actresses, and sometimes even paid prostitutes. In a letter to his friend Anthime he claims that such affairs continued even in his mature age and admits that he had two out-of-wedlock daughters (born in 1819 and 1836), both of whom died in infancy. In their youthful correspondence Arthur and Anthime were somewhat boastful and competitive about their sexual exploits—but Schopenhauer seemed aware that women usually didn't find him very charming or physically attractive, and his desires often remained unfulfilled.
He left Weimar to become a student at the University of Göttingen in 1809. There are no written reasons about why Schopenhauer chose that university instead of then more famous University of Jena but Göttingen was known as a more modern, scientifically oriented, with less attention given to theology. Law or medicine were usual choices for young men of Schopenhauer's status who also needed career and income; he choose medicine due to his scientific interests. Among his notable professors were Bernhard Friedrich Thibaut, Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Friedrich Stromeyer, Heinrich Adolf Schrader, Johann Tobias Mayer and Konrad Johann Martin Langenbeck. He studied metaphysics, psychology and logic under Gottlob Ernst Schulze, the author of Aenesidemus, who made a strong impression and advised him to concentrate on Plato and Immanuel Kant. He decided to switch from medicine to philosophy around 1810-11 and he left Göttingen which didn't have a strong philosophy program (besides Schulze the only other philosophy professor was Friedrich Bouterwek whom Schopenhauer disliked). He didn't regret his medicinal and scientific studies. He claimed that they were necessary for a philosopher, and even in Berlin he attended more lectures in sciences than in philosophy. During his days at Göttingen, he spent a lot of time studying, but also continued his flute playing and social life. His friends included Friedrich Gotthilf Osann, Karl Witte, Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen, and William Backhouse Astor Sr..
He arrived to the newly founded University of Berlin for the winter semester of 1811-12. At the same time his mother just started her literary career; she published her first book in 1810, a biography of her friend Karl Ludwig Fernow, which was a critical success. Arthur attended lectures by the prominent post-Kantian philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte but quickly found many points of disagreement with his Wissenschaftslehre and he also found his lectures tedious and hard to understand. He later mentioned Fichte only in critical, negative terms—seeing his philosophy as a lower quality version of Kant's and considering it useful only because Fichte's poor arguments unintentionally highlighted some failings of Kantianism. He also attended the lectures of the famous theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher whom he also quickly came to dislike. His notes and comments on Schleiermacher's lectures show that Schopenhauer was becoming very critical of religion and moving towards atheism. He learned a lot by self-directed reading; besides Plato, Kant and Fichte he also read the works of Schelling, Fries, Jacobi, Bacon, Locke, and a lot of current scientific literature. He attended philological courses by August Böckh and Friedrich August Wolf and continued his naturalistic interests with courses by Martin Heinrich Klaproth, Paul Erman, Johann Elert Bode, Ernst Gottfried Fischer, Johann Horkel, Friedrich Christian Rosenthal and Hinrich Lichtenstein (Lichtenstein was also a friend whom he met at one of his mother's parties in Weimar).
Schopenhauer left Berlin in a rush in 1813 fearing that the city could be attacked and that he could be pressed into military service as Prussia just joined the war against France. He returned to Weimar but left after less than a month disgusted by the fact that his mother was now living with her supposed lover, Georg Friedrich Conrad Ludwig Müller von Gerstenbergk, a civil servant fourteen years younger than she was; he considered the relationship an act of infidelity to his father's memory. He settled for a while in Rudolstadt hoping that no army would pass through the small town. He spent his time in solitude, hiking in the mountains and the Thuringian forest and writing his dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He completed his dissertation at about the same time as the French army was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig. He became irritated by the arrival of soldiers to the town and accepted his mother's invitation to visit her in Weimar. She tried to convince him that her relationship with Gerstenbergk was platonic and that she had no intentions of remarrying. But Schopenhauer remained suspicious and often came in conflict with Gerstenbergk because he considered him untalented, pretentious, and nationalistic. His mother just published her second book, Reminiscences of a Journey in the Years 1803, 1804, and 1805, a description of their family tour of Europe, which quickly became a hit. She found his dissertation incomprehensible and said it was unlikely that anyone would ever buy a copy. In a fit of temper Arthur told her that people would read his work long after the "rubbish" she wrote was totally forgotten. In fact, although they considered her novels of dubious quality, the Brockhaus publishing firm held her in high esteem because they consistently sold well. Hans Brockhaus (1888-1965) later claimed that his predecessors "...saw nothing in this manuscript, but wanted to please one of our best-selling authors by publishing her son's work. We published more and more of her son Arthur's work and today nobody remembers Johanna, but her son's works are in steady demand and contribute to Brockhaus'[s] reputation." He kept large portraits of the pair in his office in Leipzig for the edification of his new editors.
Also contrary to his mother's prediction, Schopenhauer's dissertation made an impression on Goethe to whom he sent it as a gift. Although it is doubtful that Goethe agreed with Schopenhauer's philosophical positions he was impressed by his intellect and extensive scientific education. Their subsequent meetings and correspondence were a great honor to a young philosopher who was finally acknowledged by his intellectual hero. They mostly discussed Goethe's newly published (and somewhat lukewarmly received) work on color theory. Schopenhauer soon started writing his own treatise on the subject, On Vision and Colors, which in many points differed from his teacher's. Although they remained polite towards each other, their growing theoretical disagreements – and especially Schopenhauer's tactless criticisms and extreme self-confidence – soon made Goethe become distant again and after 1816 their correspondence became less frequent. Schopenhauer later admitted that he was greatly hurt by this rejection, but he continued to praise Goethe, and considered his color theory a great introduction to his own.
Another important experience during his stay in Weimar was his acquaintance with Friedrich Majer – a historian of religion, orientalist and disciple of Herder – who introduced him to the Eastern philosophy. Schopenhauer was immediately impressed by the Upanishads and the Buddha and put them at par with Plato and Kant. He continued his studies by reading the Bhagavad Gita, an amateurish German journal Asiatisches Magazin and Asiatick Researches by The Asiatic Society. Although he loved Hindu texts he was more interested in Buddhism, which he came to regard as the best religion. However, his early studies were constrained by the lack of adequate literature, and were mostly restricted to Early Buddhism. He also claimed that he formulated most of his ideas independently, and only later realized the similarities with Buddhism.
Schopenhauer in 1815. Portrait by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl
As the relationship with his mother fell to a new low he left Weimar and moved to Dresden in May 1814. He continued his philosophical studies, enjoyed the cultural life, socialized with intellectuals and engaged in sexual affairs. His friends in Dresden were Johann Gottlob von Quandt, Friedrich Laun, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause and Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl, a young painter who made a romanticized portrait of him in which he improved some of Schopenhauer's unattractive physical features. His criticisms of local artists occasionally caused public quarrels when he ran into them in public. However, his main occupation during his stay in Dresden was his seminal philosophical work, The World as Will and Representation, which he started writing in 1814 and finished in 1818. He was recommended to Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus by Baron Ferdinand von Biedenfeld, an acquaintance of his mother. Although the publisher accepted his manuscript, Schopenhauer made a poor impression because of his quarrelsome and fussy attitude and very poor sales of the book after it was published in December 1818.
In September 1818, while waiting for his book to be published and conveniently escaping an affair with a maid that caused an unwanted pregnancy, Schopenhauer left Dresden for a yearlong vacation in Italy. He visited Venice, Bologna, Florence, Naples and Milan, travelling alone or accompanied by mostly English tourists he met. He spent winter months in Rome where he accidentally met his acquaintance Karl Witte and engaged in numerous quarrels with German tourists in Caffe Greco, among them Johann Friedrich Böhmer who also mentioned his insulting remarks and unpleasant character. He enjoyed art, architecture, ancient ruins, attended plays and operas, continued his philosophical contemplation and love affairs. One of his affairs supposedly became serious, and for a while he contemplated marriage to a rich Italian noblewoman—but despite his mentioning this several times, no details are known and it may have been Schopenhauer exaggerating. He corresponded regularly with his sister Adele and became close to her as her relationship with Johanna and Gerstenbergk also deteriorated. She informed him about their financial troubles as the banking house of A. L. Muhl in Danzig – in which her mother invested their whole savings and Arthur a third of his – was near bankruptcy. Arthur offered to share his assets but his mother refused and became further enraged by his insulting comments. The women managed to receive only thirty percent of their savings while Arthur, using his business knowledge, took a suspicious and aggressive stance towards the banker and eventually received his part in full. The affair additionally worsened the relationships among all three members of Schopenhauer family.
He shortened his stay in Italy because of the trouble with Muhl and returned to Dresden. Disturbed by the financial risk and the lack of responses to his book he decided to take an academic position since it provided him both with income and the opportunity to promote his views. He contacted his friends at universities in Heidelberg, Göttingen and Berlin and found Berlin most attractive. He scheduled his lectures to coincide with those of the famous philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whom Schopenhauer described as a "clumsy charlatan". He was especially appalled by Hegel's supposedly poor knowledge of natural sciences and tried to engage him in a quarrel about it already at his test lecture in March 1820. Hegel was also facing political suspicions at the time when many progressive professors were fired, while Schopenhauer carefully mentioned in his application that he had no interest in politics. Despite their differences and the arrogant request to schedule lectures at the same time as his own, Hegel still voted to accept Schopenhauer to the university. However, only five students turned up to Schopenhauer's lectures, and he dropped out of academia. A late essay, On University Philosophy, expressed his resentment towards the work conducted in academies.
After his academic failure he continued to travel extensively, visiting Leipzig, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Schaffhausen, Vevey, Milan and spending eight months in Florence. However, before he left for his three-year travel, he had an incident with his Berlin neighbor, forty-seven-year-old seamstress Caroline Louise Marquet. The details of the August 1821 incident are unknown. He claimed that he just pushed her from his entrance after she rudely refused to leave, and she purposely fell on the ground so she could sue him. She claimed that he attacked her so violently that she had become paralyzed on her right side and unable to work. She immediately sued him, and the process lasted until May 1827, when a court found Schopenhauer guilty and forced him to pay her an annual pension until her death in 1842.
Schopenhauer enjoyed Italy, where he studied art and socialized with Italian and English nobles. It was his last visit to the country. He left for Munich and stayed there for a year, mostly recuperating from various health issues, some of them possibly caused by venereal diseases (the treatment his doctor used suggests syphilis). He contacted publishers offering to translate Hume into German and Kant into English but his proposals were declined. Returning to Berlin he began to study Spanish so he could read some of his favorite authors in their original language. He liked Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Miguel de Cervantes, and especially Baltasar Gracián. He also made failed attempts to publish his translations of their works. Few attempts to revive his lectures – again scheduled at the same time as Hegel's – also failed, as did his inquiries about relocating to other universities.
During his Berlin years Schopenhauer occasionally mentioned his desire to marry and have a family. For a while he was unsuccessfully courting 17-year-old Flora Weiss, who was 22 years younger than he was. His unpublished writings from that time show that he was already very critical of monogamy but still not advocating polygyny – instead musing about a polyamorous relationship he called tetragamy. He had an on and off relationship with a young dancer Caroline Richter (she also used surname Medon after one of her ex-lovers). They met when he was 33 and she was 19 and working at the Berlin Opera. She had already had numerous lovers and a son out-of-wedlock, and later gave birth to another son, this time to an unnamed foreign diplomat. (She soon had another pregnancy but the child was stillborn). As Schopenhauer was preparing to escape Berlin in 1831, due to cholera epidemic, he offered to take her with him on the condition that she left behind her young son. She refused and he went alone; in his will he left her a significant sum of money but insisted that it should not be in any way spent on her second son.
Schopenhauer claimed that in his last year in Berlin, he had a prophetic dream that urged him to escape the city. As he arrived in his new home in Frankfurt he supposedly had another supernatural experience, an apparition of his dead father and his mother who was still alive. This experience led him to spend some time investigating paranormal phenomena and magic. He was quite critical of the available studies and claimed that they were mostly ignorant or fraudulent, but he did believe that there are authentic cases of such phenomena and tried to explain them through his metaphysics as manifestations of the will.
Upon his arrival in Frankfurt he experienced a period of depression and declining health. He renewed his correspondence with his mother, and she seemed concerned that he might commit suicide like his father. By now Johanna and Adele were living very modestly. Johanna's writing didn't bring her much income, and her popularity was waning. Their correspondence remained reserved, and Arthur Schopenhauer seemed undisturbed by her death in 1838. His relationship with his sister grew closer and he corresponded with her until she died in 1849.
In July 1832 Schopenhauer left Frankfurt for Mannheim but returned in July 1833 to remain there for the rest of his life, except for a few short journeys. He lived alone except for a succession of pet poodles named Atman and Butz. In 1836, he published
On the Will in Nature. In 1836 he sent his essay On the Freedom of the Will to the contest of the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and won the prize next year. He sent another essay, On the Basis of Morality, to the Royal Danish Society for Scientific Studies but didn't win the prize despite being the only contestant. The Society was appalled that several distinguished contemporary philosophers were mentioned in a very offensive manner, claimed that the essay missed the point and that the arguments were not adequate. Schopenhauer, who was very self-confident that he will win, was enraged by this rejection. He published both essays as The Two Basic Problems of Ethics and in the preface to the second edition of this book, in 1860, he was still pouring insults on Royal Danish Society. First edition, published in 1841, again failed to draw attention to his philosophy. Two years later, after some negotiations, he managed to convince his publisher, Brockhaus, to print the second, updated edition of The World as Will and Representation. The book was again mostly ignored and few reviews were mixed or negative.
However, Schopenhauer did start to attract some followers, mostly outside academia, among practical professionals (several of them were lawyers) who pursued private philosophical studies. He jokingly referred to them as evangelists and apostles. One of the most active early followers was Julius Frauenstädt who wrote numerous articles promoting Schopenhauer's philosophy. He was also instrumental in finding another publisher after Brockhaus refused to publish Parerga and Paralipomena believing that it would be another failure. Though Schopenhauer later stopped corresponding with him, claiming that he did not adhere closely enough to his ideas, Frauenstädt continued to promote Schopehnauer's work. They renewed their communication in 1859 and Schopenhauer named him heir for his literary estate. He also became the editor of the first collected works of Schopenhauer.
In 1848 Schopenhauer witnessed violent upheaval in Frankfurt after General Hans Adolf Erdmann von Auerswald and Prince Felix Lichnowsky were murdered. He became worried for his own safety and property. Even earlier in life he had such worries and kept a sword and loaded pistols near his bed to defend himself from thieves. He gave a friendly welcome to Austrian soldiers who wanted to shoot revolutionaries from his window and as they were leaving he gave one of the officers his opera glasses to help him monitor rebels. The rebellion passed without any loss to Schopenhauer and he later praised Alfred I, Prince of Windisch-Grätz for restoring order. He even modified his will, leaving a large part of his property to a Prussian fund that helped soldiers who became invalids while fighting rebellion in 1848 or the families of soldiers who died in battle. As Young Hegelians were advocating change and progress Schopenhauer claimed that misery is natural for humans—and that even if some utopian society were established, people would still fight each other out of boredom, or would starve due to overpopulation.
1855 painting of Schopenhauer by Jules Lunteschütz
In 1851 Schopenhauer published Parerga and Paralipomena, which, as the title says, contains essays that are supplementary to his main work, and are mostly comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with his earlier philosophy. It was his first successful, widely read book, partly due to the work of his disciples who wrote praising reviews. The essays that proved most popular were the ones that actually didn't contain the basic philosophical ideas of his system. Many academic philosophers considered him a great stylist and cultural critic but didn't take his philosophy seriously. His early critics liked to point out similarities of his ideas to those Fichte and Schelling, or claim that there are numerous contradictions in his philosophy. Both criticisms enraged Schopenhauer. However, he was becoming less interested in intellectual fights, but encouraged his disciples to do so. His private notes and correspondence show that he acknowledged some of the criticisms regarding contradictions, inconsistencies, and vagueness in his philosophy, but claimed that he wasn't concerned about harmony and agreement in his propositions and that some of his ideas shouldn't be taken literally but instead as metaphors.
Academic philosophers were also starting to notice his work. In 1856 University of Leipzig sponsored an essay contest about Schopenhauer's philosophy, which was won by Rudolf Seydel’s very critical essay. Schopenhauer's friend Jules Lunteschütz made a first of his four portraits of him – which Schopenhauer didn't particularly like – that was soon sold to a wealthy landowner Carl Ferdinand Wiesike who built a house to display it. Schopenhauer seemed flattered and amused by this, and would claim that it was his first chapel. As his fame increased copies of his paintings and photographs were being sold and admirers were visiting the places where he lived and wrote his works. People visited Frankfurt's Englischer Hof to observe him dining. Admirers gave him gifts and asked for autographs. He complained, however, that he still felt isolated due to his not very social nature and the fact that many of his good friends already died from old age.
Grave at Frankfurt Hauptfriedhof
He remained healthy in his old age, which he attributed to regular walks no matter the weather, and always getting enough sleep. He had a great appetite and could read without glasses but his hearing was declining since his youth and he developed problems with rheumatism. He remained active and lucid, continued his reading, writing and correspondences until his death. The numerous notes that he made during these years, amongst others on aging, were published posthumously under the title Senilia. In the spring of 1860 his health started to decline, he experienced shortness of breath and heart palpitations; in September he suffered inflammation of the lungs and although he was starting to recover he remained very weak. His last friend to visit him was Wilhelm Gwinner and according to him Schopenhauer was concerned that he won't be able to finish his planned additions to Parerga and Paralipomena but was at peace with dying. He died of pulmonary-respiratory failure, on 21 September 1860 while sitting at home on his couch. He was 72.